HANGING on a chain link fence near the fan entrance at Panther Field is a placard proudly bearing the 15 names of Jackson County’s varsity softball players and a message stating where this program is headed: “Columbus, here we come.”
For Jackson County’s seniors, a trip to the Elite Eight in Columbus is a dream end to a dream season — and their careers.
“It feels unreal, like I kind of can’t believe it,” senior Victoria Fontana said. “But getting there is definitely going to be over-the-top.”
The Panthers (21-15) start quarterfinals play in Columbus Thursday at 2:30 p.m. against Chapel Hill. This is only the second Elite Eight appearance in the school’s history. These seniors feel the weight of the moment.
“It feels great to finally accomplish one of our goals that we’ve had all four years of high school,” senior Andrea Ledford said. “And to go out and end our senior year in Columbus, it feels great.”
Senior Whitney Kendrix agrees.
“I feel good that I got to go with this group of girls,” she said. “We’ve gotten really close this year, but it’s going to be fun.”
As winners of 18 of their last 24 games, Jackson County is playing as good as anyone around.
But success wasn’t instantaneous.
After losing its top two pitchers from last year and top offensive player during the offseason, Jackson County played an arduous early-season schedule that left it 3-9-1 after 13 games.
Leford said the turning point came when region play started. Fontana took it a step further, pointing to something that resonated personally.
“I think the turning point was when we realized that a lot of people were underestimating us,” Fontana said. “That we actually had the potential to go far, and we wanted to prove a lot of people wrong.”
And they have. Many times over.
Finding a mid-season spark, Jackson County tied for the regular season region title and then won the Region 8-AAA title as a no. 3 seed, beating Franklin County. The Panthers then swept both Cartersville and Fannin County in the first two rounds of the Class AAA playoffs.
Jackson County now has 21 wins, the second straight year it has reached the 20-win plateau.
“Something we needed to work on was working as a team, playing as a team,” Kendrix said. “And I think we’ve gotten to that point as a team, cheering everybody on — being one instead of individuals. That’s helped us out a lot.”
Said Fontana: “Yeah, I agree. I think another reason that we’re doing so well and that we’ve become so close is that we’re not nervous. We’re having fun with ourselves and each other.”
Of course, their own leadership can’t be underestimated in this run of success. Just ask Jackson County coach Chessie Laird, who said this senior group has “hearts of champions.”
“They are great role models for their other teammates and are always there to help mentor the younger players,” Laird said.
“I could not be more proud of Victoria, Andrea, Whitney and Kristin (Anderson) and I’m glad they get to have this experience as part of a memorable senior year.”
And there have been plenty of memories through 37 games and an eventful playoff run, during which eight of the Panthers’ victories have occurred.
“I guess (my favorite moment) was my last hit on this home field and seeing the fans on their feet cheering for you, that’s a feeling that’s never going to be replaceable,” Ledford said.
Fontana pointed to the Sweet 16 win over Fannin County and the region championship series against Franklin County.
“Fannin County and definitely beating Franklin County for the region title,” Fontana said. “That was a good feeling. A lot of people underestimated us when it came to that game but we knew what we had to do and we got it done.”
Unfortunately for these seniors, their high school softball careers won’t extend past Saturday when play wraps up in Columbus.
But they leave the program knowing it is in good hands with loads of young talent.
Kendrix, whose younger sister Shelton is a key player on the team, feels great about the future of the program.
“We wouldn’t want to leave it in the hands of another group of girls besides this group,” she said.
Said Ledford: “It feels great to know these girls worked so hard to get there and that they’re getting to help us to get to where we always wanted to be, and knowing next year that they still have the same ability and the same chance to get there.”
Fontana knows there will be mixed emotions this weekend in Columbus.
“I mean, it’s upsetting knowing that our season is going to be over but when you think about it, us seniors wouldn’t want to go out a different way with a different group of girls,” Fontana said.
“Basically, this is the perfect way to end a senior softball career,” Fontana said.